Marshall's exit reignites abortion issue

Joan Beck

July 02, 1991|By Joan Beck

BY RETIRING from the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall has made it certain that the battered, old issue of abortion will be high on the nation's political agenda the rest of this century.

It's going to be a bumpy, bitter ride for a sharply divided nation and for the pro-choice and pro-life forces already throwing their renewed energies and fund-raising efforts into high gear. It could go something like this:

Summer 1991: Abortion will be a litmus test for the high court nominee President Bush sends the Senate to confirm. To avoid another Bork attack, he chooses a brilliant, but little-known black jurist considered to be a moderate Republican who deftly sidesteps senators' probing on his abortion views. He wins reluctant confirmation.

Fall 1992: The Supreme Court, with some reluctance, agrees to hear appeals of three controversial state laws on abortion. Pennsylvania legislation bans most abortions in public hospitals, abortions for sex selection and after the 24th week of pregnancy and requires a 24-hour waiting period and notification of the woman's husband.

Utah's law forbids abortions except in cases of rape or incest, grave danger to the mother's health or abnormalities in the vTC unborn baby. Louisians's statute is similar, but adds a penalty to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine for doing an abortion.

The high court justices decide to rule on the cases together, combined with an appeal of a Guam law that makes it a crime to perform, solicit or aid in an abortion or undergo one except to save the life of the woman.

Four justices have already said they would agree to reverse Roe v. Wade. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seems willing to restrict abortion rights but reluctant to overturn Roe completely. Justice David Souter's views aren't certain. But he and the new justice will presumably vote with a conservative majority.

Fall 1992: Republicans include a pro-life plank in their party platform. Democrats opt to be pro-choice. President Bush wins re-election. The Democrats retain majorities in both houses of Congress. Pro-life candidates increase their seats in state legislatures (45 of which considered more than 200 bills limiting abortion rights in 1991 alone).

January 1993: Days before President Bush's second inauguration, another pro-Roe justice resigns, opening the way to solidify further a long-term conservative majority on the high court. Riding the crest of his big win at the polls, Bush succeeds in easily winning confirmation for his candidate -- in time to hear arguments on the abortion cases.

June 1993: Before adjourning for the summer, the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade by 8-to-1 vote. State laws now govern abortion.

1993: Sales of contraceptives, particularly the long-lasting implant Norplant, increase markedly. Increases in sterilization procedures for both men and women are reported. No change in extramarital sexual activity is noted.

1994: State legislators knuckle down to writing abortion laws they know will really go into effect. All states pass updated measures of some kind. About half of them essentially allow abortion on demand, with restrictions only after the fetus is viable. A third, most of them in the South and West, enact laws similar to Louisiana's. The rest generally limit abortion to the earliest weeks of pregnancy, before any signs of life can be detected in the fetus.

The Food and Drug Administration refuses to approve the French abortifacient pill RU-486. Reports it is being smuggled into this country are increasing, despite French controls on its export. The birth rate is increasing, but by less than in the late '80s and by less than predicted.

1995: Women and health-care workers try to adjust to the patchwork of abortion laws. Entrepreneurs in New York and other liberal states set up huge abortion clinics that draw patients from states with stricter laws. Pro-choice and civil-rights groups complain that poor women are being discriminated against. The media are flooded with stories about women dying or being maimed in illegal abortions; a few of the reports check out.

1997: Under incessant pressure from pro-choice forces and once the 1996 election is over, Congress by a thin majority passes a law making abortion legal essentially on demand, restricting it only after viability except when a mother's health is endangered. The president vetoes it. Congress is unable to override.

1998: The Supreme Court reluctantly agrees to hear three cases challenging restrictive state abortion laws on civil-rights and privacy grounds. Its rulings are so narrow they are inconsequential.

2000: In this election year, Democrats once again write a plank into their party platform supporting abortion and calling on Congress to pass a federal pro-choice law. Republicans put support for right-to-life laws in their platform. Candidates try to dodge the issue.

Right-to-life groups picket abortion clinics in states that allow them. Pro-life and pro-choice organizations incessantly appeal for funds. The teen-age pregnancy rate continues to be the highest of any industralized nation. Child abuse has not increased. Polls show Americans are still ambivalent about abortion. A majority don't want to force women to continue an unwanted pregnancy, but are reluctant to allow unrestricted abortion on demand and unable to reconcile both views.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. 2

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